Jeremy Kriger's been out of college just a few years, but said that he's already forgotten how much of a strain it can be to sit in class all day.
So, at the second annual LimmudPhilly, the 26-year-old environmental consultant noshed on a salted pretzel while his wife continued to sit in on a session. The graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy said he already had a good taste of the experience, attending classes on conversion, Jewish global citizenship and the meaning of the sacrifice rituals described in the Torah.
The night before, also as part of Limmud, the couple had seen a gospel singer perform traditional Jewish songs as part of a Havdalah service, a stand-up comedian make light of his year in the Israeli army and a rabbi wail on the electric guitar while performing a rock opera based on the book of Genesis.
Perhaps it's no wonder that his head was spinning.
"Anytime you have a large gathering of Jews from diverse backgrounds, that's in and of itself interesting," said Kriger, a member of the Modern Orthodox Mekor Habracha-Center City Synagogue. "Usually, you stay in your community, and you learn from people who are similar in practice to you."
While Kriger has spent most of his life in the Philadelphia area, 33-year-old Jim Costello just moved here, and Limmud was one of the first major Jewish events he has attended.
Hoping to switch professionally from law to music, Costello said that he was able to find several sources of inspiration at Limmud, including a program on the structure of the psalms and another on Jewish hip-hop.
"I love the diversity of people and diversity of presenters," described Costello, who lugged his guitar around with him as a possible conversation piece.
Costello has also been attending services at Mekor Habracha in Center City.
More than 650 people took part in the two-day program. They chose from some 90 different classes — focusing on arts and culture, Israel, social justice and spirituality — about 20 more than were offered at the area's first Limmud a year ago.
After attending Limmud last year, Bobbie Cohen, 58, a Center City management consultant, was so enthusiastic about the program that she became a co-chair this time around. She spent the better part of a year's effort for something that lasts 36 hours. She and several other volunteers even traveled to England, where the program originated, to get ideas from the conference there.
"One of our missions, in addition to the education, is that we want to create more of a cohesive Jewish community, where people are OK coming to something that does not have a denomination attached to it, or a particular ideology attached to it," noted Cohen, a member of Center City's Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir.
Cohen said that planners had hoped to attract more of an Orthodox presence this year, partly by recruiting more Orthodox presenters. It wasn't so easy to tell how well the effort had succeeded, though a number of kipot were noticed in the crowd.
Kriger, who identifies as Orthodox, said that it might have helped if the program had included morning and afternoon minyans. He added that a lot of his fellow congregants are in graduate school, and less anxious to learn on their days off.
Some of the courses had obvious Jewish content. In others, the angle took a little more digging to extract it out.
In one packed session, president of the American Jewish World Service Ruth Messinger discussed international food policy, and how the U.S. government and large agro-businesses unwittingly harm farmers in developing nations, perpetuating hunger and poverty.
Messinger said that U.S. companies export crops to the developing world that sell at prices far lower than local farmers can sell them, which forces growers to abandon agriculture altogether, often without having another way to earn a living. Citing several Jewish sources, she said that a world in which 75 percent of developing nations can't feed their own populace is a broken one, and it is the Jewish community's responsibility to help fix it.
Interesting points, but was this really Jewish learning?
Absolutely, stated Sara Landman, a teacher in the Philadelphia school system, who after finishing college in 2004 had spent a year in Israel. Already having a strong grounding in Jewish texts, Landman was interested in hearing about how to put Jewish values into action, and came to Limmud specifically to hear Messinger.
Stuart Bogom, a Mount Airy resident, also said that the session addressed the practical applications of tikkun olam.
Speaking about the Limmud experience as a whole, the 54-year-old said: "There is all this ferment in the Jewish community. Here, you can sample it all in such an easy way."